Museums can be tough to navigate. Even with a docent, depending on who it is, a few hours might seem endless. So back in 2013, Nick Gray had an idea to make museums come to life in a new way. That idea led to the creation of Museum Hack.
For weeks, Gray attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with an iPad in hand, and researched the pieces he found most interesting. It started as free tours he led for friends, but it blossomed quickly into a business. Gray answered some of my questions via email about his self-proclaimed "unconventional approach" to museum tours:
Q: I know you have expanded to new cities and museums. What prompted the expansion? Where are you heading next?
Gray: Museum Hack is on a mission to re-imagine the adult museum experience. We do that by consulting for museums around the world about how we "hack" tours, and by expanding our own offerings. Going to new cities and new museums means we can reach more people and help them fall in love with museums again. A personal note is that it's also really rewarding for me to provide great jobs for the talented guides that lead our tours -- to do that we need to grow our company. We currently operate in NYC, DC and SF, and the next stop is Chicago!
How do you train your guides? Should they have some background in history, or art, or science, whatever the subject may be, or is it better to have guides who are coming in fresh and looking to pick up the background material as they go?
Gray: Some of our guides have deep academic credentials and experience in areas like art history and science, but the number one trait we hire for is "connection." Our guides are leaders and storytellers that bring a small group through a big space and make it feel alive. Many of our guides are also performers -- actors, musicians, comedians, etc. that have developed talents for drawing people into an experience.
We have an intensive training program at Museum Hack and many great candidates don't make the cut. Guides shadow tours and serve as co-hosts for weeks and sometimes months before they lead their own tours, and have allocated Creative Time each week for researching new pieces to talk about. We also do monthly Trainages where we hire an outside expert to teach us new skills like improv or understanding a specific type of art.
What do you tell the guides during their training, as they are assembling their main talking points and locations within the museum of interest to them?
Gray: We have developed a few strict criteria that all of our guides follow, but it's better to think of this as a framework -- because each guide has a ton of leeway to create their own unique experiences. Examples include our 5 Elements of a Hack, which we use to tell stories that POP with engagement. Also, we aim for a two-hour tour to include 12 to 15 stops, which usually means the guide talks about some pieces a little longer and others just a quick stop to point out something neat. Another way we prioritize pacing is taking short breaks to recharge and overcome museum fatigue, and integrating games and activities into the tour.
Where do you acquire new customers from, mostly? How has the marketing strategy been playing out so far?
Gray: Work of mouth marketing is big for us. We work hard to create a unique, one-of-a-kind experience and we are fortunate that guests tell their friends about us. We are also a top 10 event on TripAdvisor which helps to introduce new guests to our tours.
What have you learned about your business, customers, or museums that has surprised you?
Gray: Museums are f***ing awesome! No kidding and no exceptions. Every museum on Earth has unique pieces in their collection with stories that need to be told. You may walk through a museum and see pottery, weapons, paintings, etc., but if you dive in with just a little bit of research you can discover amazing facts and backstories. Maybe that painting has a secret message encoded in the design and colors, or the pottery was actually part of an ancient and mysterious ritual. Finding the stories is critical to an amazing museum experience.
Also, we've been surprised at just how many companies are interested in coming on teambuilding tours with us. We've hosted groups from Google, Facebook, Adobe, Etsy, KPMG, LEGO, and hundreds of others.